Characterizing chronic kidney disease (CKD) at all stages is an essential part of rational management and the renal biopsy plays a key role in defining the processes involved. There remain no global guidelines available to the renal community on indications for this important diagnostic, prognostic, and relatively safe test. Although most nephrologists recognize several clear indications for a renal biopsy, it is still underutilized. It not only helps the clinician to manage the patient with CKD, but it can also help clarify the epidemiology of CKD, and aid research into the pathobiology of disease with the aim of discovering new therapies. It may be useful for instance in elderly patients with CKD, those with diabetes and presumed 'hypertensive nephropathy', and in some patients with advanced CKD as part of the pretransplant work-up. In some populations (for example, immunoglobulin A nephropathy and ANCA vasculitis), renal biopsy allows disease classification that may predict CKD progression and response to therapy. For the individual, interval renal biopsy may be of use in providing ongoing therapeutic and prognostic information. Molecular advances will change the landscape of renal pathology and add a new dimension to the diagnostic precision of kidney biopsy. Organizing the multiplicity of information available in a renal biopsy to maximize benefits to the patient, as well as to the epidemiologist and researcher, is one of the challenges that face the nephrology community.Kidney International advance online publication, 8 January 2014; doi:10.1038/ki.2013.512.